Can tablets really replace books?

The world has begun to enthusiastically tout tablets and e-readers as the future of education, abandoning physical texts in favor of digital convenience. Schools are spending millions to provide tablets to their students, and Apple is reaching out to its college audience by upping the number of textbooks available from the iBookstore.

Having bought into the hype, I purchased an iPad and loaded the device with all of my textbooks and study materials for this quarter, thereby relieving myself of the massive load that is my backpack.

Of course, studying on my iPad came with pitfalls, particularly in the form of major distraction. One push of a button can take me from a textbook to my seemingly endless Twitter feed, and a five minute break can turn into half an hour of reading about every current event that is happening at any given moment.

For this reason, I began to consider purchasing real textbooks for the future.  Some research, however, led me to discover that studying on an e-reader can inhibit the absorption of information for an entirely different reason.

In an article in the Scientific American, author Ferris Jabr writes about the science of reading from a digital device as opposed to reading from a book. He explains that our brains absorb textual information best when they can navigate and map its contents in a physical form. When a person reads and his or her mind highlights a particular piece of information, it does so by taking in the words’ physical location in the book in relation to the top, bottom, and corners of a page, as well as the page’s distance from the front and back covers. On an e-reader or tablet, we see one ethereal block of text at a time, the device offering no physical anchor that would allow our minds to assign a location to any given line of text.

This limits the mind’s ability to recall the information later on.

A 2003 study out of the University of Leicester tested a group of college students on a text they had been given to read. Half read the text via digital medium, and the others read from paper. Though both did well when asked questions about the text, the difference came down to “remembering” versus “knowing.” Those who read on paper formed a deeper relationship with the text and therefore better stored the information in their long term memories, whereas those who read electronically had a more difficult time recalling the information later on.

All that is not to say that tablets and e-readers do not provide a myriad of educational tools that will greatly further education. (Nor is it to say that I will be trading in the freedom of carrying my all–in–one device for a spine bending load of textbooks.) But it is worth noting that preserving physical books, especially for education, is not just about a nostalgic desire for those who were born before the turn of the century; it is about how we learn most effectively.